Cohorts—The Diaspora of the Teachers

Cary Nelson


From Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004).

     THE YEAR was 1975. Just west of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where one of us lives, there is a place where the freeway adapts to what counts as a local hill. On the way home one day my car rose in the air just enough for me to see across the surrounding fields. There, atop a tractor, churning along furrows owned by the local garden supply center, was one of my former university colleagues. She was not in my department, English, but rather in Comparative Literature, where she had been turned down for tenure the previous year because she hadn't published enough. Unable to find an academic job, there she was, in the midwest's longest-running occupation. In my mind's eye she will always be there, the dust spewing out behind her, poised in a living lesson that anything is possible, proof that the world (or at least the teaching profession's corner of it) is utterly unpredictable and surreal. Yet in actuality she was gone again in a few months, this time like a mail-order bride unwittingly betrothed to history. She had answered an ad to teach at Birzeit University on the West Bank. It was neither a destination nor a culture she knew much about in advance, but she would learn. Or so her occasional letters to friends suggested. But then the letters stopped. The Israelis had closed down the Palestinians' notoriously politicized campus—it was at the very least an organizing site for the intifada—and she was unemployed again. This time innocence and industry combined to make a still more risky move possible. She took a job teaching in Hafez al-Assad's Syria, vanishing for a time into one of the world's notorious police states. When she resurfaced again it was to teach in Jordan.
     A few months earlier, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, I had run into one of my cohort from graduate school at the University of Rochester. He was making one last futile run at the non-existent job market of the early 1970s. In a doomed effort to unify counter-culture and academia, his student years of the 1960s and his dreams about the profession of the 1970s, he had decided to write a dissertation about drugs and literature. There had been no interest in interviewing him to date, and he was more than a little cynical about himself and the game he had wagered in so badly. "I decided the way to make the dissertation different was to make it comprehensive, really comprehensive," he emphasized, "but my committee felt differently. As one of them put it, 'You've compiled a dismal bibliography for junkies.'" There were no takers for what he had to offer in the job wars.
     I am not offering these stories as accounts of departmental misconduct or even of professional injustice, though how attentive the advising was that my fellow Rochester graduate student received I cannot say; they are simply among the innumerable individual disasters of academic life in recent decades. Among the people in my several cohorts without guarantees—fellow graduate students, fellow assistant professors, and University of Illinois graduate students who received their degrees while I was on the tenure track—who lost their jobs, for example, were two Illinois Ph.Ds of the early 1970s; they won tenure at institutions oriented toward teaching and then lost it shortly thereafter, one to alcoholism and one to a manic-depressive illness.[i] In a different job system, recovery might have made re-entry to full-time teaching possible. Instead, they both survive now on the margins of the profession, teaching part-time on the cusp of age fifty-five.
     Their marginalization has been exacerbated by an unforgiving job system. They are not alone. Several other Illinois Ph.Ds of the 1970s have known nothing but part-time or adjunct work all their lives. They are among the thousands of Ph.Ds in what my own institution now formally calls the "lost generation" of the 1970s and 1980s, some of whom have spent twenty years cobbling together an income of sorts at $800 or $1,000 or $1,500 a course.
     Yet among the three cohorts I am concerned with here, the one that haunts my memory most decisively perhaps is my class of assistant professors at Illinois. In the fall of 1970 ten faculty members joined the English department here; it was the last year of boom hiring. The following year, 1971, saw only one appointment, a British Ph.D. who had accepted the Illinois job while suffering from a typically British misapprehension about American geography. He had visited a colleague in London, Illinois offer in hand, more than a little uneasy about the move. The friend spun a globe and stopped it with his finger on Illinois. "Look," he said, "you like New York, you like California; now both will be equally accessible. You don't have to choose." On a bleak day in London it seemed to make sense. The inch on either side of his friend's finger didn't seem like much of an obstacle. He would soon find out otherwise. Like other assistant professors without a partner in residence, he also found out that an isolated midwestern campus is not a good place to be alone. His daily intake by the time he left was one hardboiled egg and a bottle of scotch. The egg, as I remember, came in and out of the fridge as he nibbled away at it during the course of the day. On sleepless nights he listened to rock music stations on the radio, entering their contests to identify band members one after another. Luckily for him, within two years he made it back to an academic job in England before the market closed down there as well. Before long, Margaret Thatcher decided universities were inherent enemies of the state and instituted a mix of cuts, job insecurity, and obscure rules for intercampus competition.
     Meanwhile ten of us were teaching our six courses a year at what purported to be a research university. The survival rate for assistant professors at Illinois in those days was not impressive. We were more than expendable; we were forgettable. We would earn tenure or we would not, but the department was not about to be of any help in the matter. As casually as we were hired, it is only surprising that people were actually fired with regret. But when I went into the department to test my memory against our office records, I quickly found out that there were no records. My department could not tell me the names of the faculty members we hired in 1970. No one at the time was keeping lists of that sort.
     We do keep records now, or at least we did for a while, having hired two first-rate administrative aides in the mid-1970s, both of whom decided on their own initiative that institutional history matters.[ii] With their help, and with a few conversations with colleagues, I could piece together the ten names. In one case a trip to basement personnel files was necessary because none of us could remember when a particular assistant professor was hired or when he left. Since then, both those staff members have retired; assembling additional historical details would be more challenging still. And I would not want to stake my life on the fidelity of our records of recent adjunct faculty hires.
     Back then, there was little time to publish on the teaching schedules we were assigned, especially when we taught three different courses in a single semester. One can only imagine what it is like for those teaching five or more courses at once. In one of the numerous ways the department found to flaunt hierarchy, assistant and associate professors taught six courses a year, while full professors taught but four.[iii] Worse still, several of my young colleagues suffered from long-running writing blocks. Others were doing work that the conservative gate-keepers who then controlled the profession were not about to approve for publication. Assuming they knew both themselves and the profession well—and recognized their own strengths and limitations, a very large assumption indeed in academia—a more robust job market might have provided them with more realistic employment options, namely teaching jobs at colleges that did not expect publication. Instead they were here at Illinois, headed toward disaster.
     Two of my faculty class of 1970 saw the lack of their own writing on the wall and bowed out quietly, resigning before the department made the decision for them. One had a book manuscript arguing, with a helping hand from psychoanalytic theory, that the eighteenth century was anything but the age of reason. His senior colleague in the eighteenth century couldn't decide whether this thesis was primarily comical or criminal, but he had no such doubts about the appropriate fate for someone irresponsible enough to make such an argument. He himself was notorious for teaching seminars by reciting lists of words from the week's readings he deemed unfamiliar and then sharing the dictionary definitions with the class. Another untenured colleague found his claim that Milton was actually subverting the genres he worked in falling on journal editors' deaf ears. These were the early 1970s, when a number of specializations were still dominated by the folks who had kept feminism, Marxism, and theory generally, along with women and minority writers, out of the profession. The young faculty members in my cohort should have fought back, trying multiple submissions and writing still more, but they did not. They let themselves be broken.
     In retrospect, of course, it seems like the department made sound decisions. But success has a way of building on itself and breeding more successes, until it looks like the sweet triumph of justice, whereas failure sits stolidly and moves nowhere, merely confirming itself more thoroughly over time. We all know that early luck and good mentoring play important roles in successful careers, as does a PhD from some prestige institutions; it's just that we have no way of thinking about such things institutionally.[iv] Harvard considers publishing the books of its graduates--not just its faculty--a priority, a perk most of the rest of higher education has never dreamed of, let alone put in place. Meanwhile, from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s my department occasionally tenured some of the most uninspired teachers and unimaginative research faculty I have ever known, all because they had just barely met the university's publication requirements.[v] Those who had exceeded the requirements and done exceptionally well all went through elaborate hazing rituals and were nearly fired. I was turned down for tenure two years in a row, receiving it on my third nomination. The second time I was denied tenure the official reason was "insubordination," a crime I am more than willing to claim as my own; in any case, whether I was guilty or not, there is little chance I can persuade anyone now that I was innocent. All in all, except for those fired outright, those who had the greatest difficulty being approved for tenure either then or later proved to be the department's most productive scholars.
     We could certainly have done better at mentoring and supporting new faculty. Indeed we do much better now, giving new faculty rapid access to specialized courses, guaranteeing time off for research, and conducting annual reviews that give significant feedback. Individual senior faculty, it is true, do not all help younger colleagues individually, but that is only partly a failure of our collective culture; it is partly a problem of character. Whether we could have handled the review process for my cohort more effectively I still do not know. Certainly more meaningful criteria exist—one might ask whether a candidate for tenure is in fact a committed intellectual—but negotiating issues like that collectively is not likely to be easy.
     In any case, four others in my 1970 cohort of faculty stayed on and were fired. Of the ten, four received tenure and were still on the faculty nearly thirty years later. What has happened to the others? One returned to Oakland to live with her parents, becoming a part-time legal secretary and eventually inheriting her parents' home. Back in Illinois her house was full of dozens of puzzles she assembled obsessively, though only until realizing it was time to leave. Another went to work in his father-in-law's hardware store outside Chicago, inheriting that business in time. Still another landed a job working on the editorial staff of a Jacksonville, Mississpippi newspaper. When that job ended, he edited a computer magazine for a time. Thereafter he tried free-lance writing, but the need for something more secure was apparent. Soon he was running a bed-and-breakfast establishment in North Carolina. My closest friend in the group became a property manager in the Bay Area, his considerable skills at close reading Renaissance poems now focused instead on analyzing leases and contracts. On bad days he must evict tenants from apartment buildings. His worst day ever was the one on which he had to put the equivalent of a small village of Southeast Asian refugees, all wearing black pajamas, out on the street.
     Neither he nor any of the other of these people has a large income, though the property manager worked himself up to a modest small-college level professorial salary as he reached age sixty. They all have fundamentally insecure jobs with inadequate salaries. Retirement is not an option. None have careers that make use of the skills honed in years of graduate study and teaching, if indeed they can be thought to have "careers" at all. Twenty-five years after leaving academia the Miltonist turned property manager remarks, "I still resent that I know Paradise Lost well and cannot share the knowledge with students." None have given up talking about their Illinois tenure decision. Part of their lives are lived substantially in the aborted years of devotion to literature. They remain at some level psychologically in transit toward new identities they will never reach.
     And as for the jobs they occupied so briefly? Well, most academic professional associations like to talk about tenure-track jobs as though they flow harmoniously into tenure and "lead to academic careers." That was not to be the fate of my class of 1970. Moreover, when the individuals themselves were fired, the jobs they held were cancelled. The university was downsizing its largest humanities department rapidly in the 1970s. It was partly a tactical decision by the Director of the School of Humanities. The best way to secure a power base, so the reasoning appears to have gone, was to protect all the small, weak humanities departments, while hacking away remorselessly at English and History. It worked until English revolted, withdrew from the School, and celebrated the School's collapse. We never got those faculty lines back and we never will. The positions were eliminated.
     As my cohort of faculty hires headed toward their confrontation with tenure, the casualties of the previous class had barely been cleared away. Five assistant professors were hired that year (1969). Two were tenured, two were fired, and one resigned in anticipation of his termination. Of the last three, only one remained in academia, finding a position in a junior college. One now works in a bank in Indiana, one found work in advertizing and consulting and has not been heard from since.
     Meanwhile the graduate students who finished their degrees here in those years had equally mixed fates. My first graduate student completed her Ph.D in the dead market year of 1973. We counted her lucky to land a tenure-track community college job in New Jersey. Twenty-five years later, thousands of composition papers assigned and graded, she chose to take early retirement. Her life has had its pleasures, but substantial parts of her "career" have not been counted among them. Articulate, well-organized, she could easily have published and to a larger degree led a life of the mind in a different sort of job. I realize she was not doomed to wander the killing fields of Cambodia. There are worse fates than hers. Now there are even ideologies available that idealize those grading tasks. But I would not trade my career for hers. And she did not need the intellectual training she received to prepare her for the job she landed.
     One of the uncomfortable—and rarely acknowledged—lessons to be learned from her life and others like it is that there are some tenure-track jobs out there very possibly not worth having. A teacher of composition may easily grade 120 papers a week. It is true that one of our own graduate students specializing in rhetoric and composition told me she would rather read a set of rhetoric papers than a Jane Austen novel any day of the week, but I have decided to insist she was pulling my leg. It's like taking home a badly written 600-page novel that repeats itself every five pages. Over the course of a thirty-year career you may grade 120,000 or more composition papers.
     Yet my student was among the 40% or so of the more than 200 Ph.Ds produced by the University of Illinois English department in the 1970s who eventually found some sort of college teaching job. Because our program provides immense amounts of teaching experience, our placement rate has often run relatively high. Of course, that still means more than half of our Ph.Ds ended up in other careers. The list is varied: free-lance editor, management methods analyst, supervisor at the Internal Revenue Service, management-training consultant, librarian. Several teach high school. A few found places in higher education administration. A number have unspecified business careers. And among the hundreds of graduate students who dropped out of the program and never finished their degrees the roles range from bartender to screen writer. One of my advisees went the bartender route, and I find myself leaving him a tip at least once a month; I have done so for twenty years.
     Few of these people have the career satisfaction a faculty member can attain. For many failed PhDs or PhD wannabees must trade idealization for income. They are forced to find a way of earning a living doing something they neither love nor admire. They will no longer be paid a salary for talking about truth and beauty. The sense of deep inner division this shift causes should not be underestimated. That is partly why the promotion of "alternative careers" can produce such anger among dissertation students and unemployed PhDs. We spend years instilling an ideology of idealization in students and then expect them to abandon it cheerfully to work in an insurance agency. It is also why so many failed literary academics seem homeless, rudderless, endlessly and hopelessly self-justifying. Some, to be sure, go on to law school and do satisfying work earning a good salary in time, but many remain in career and identity limbo.
     Overall, things work out best for who those who leave soonest. In my cohort at Rochester, all the graduate students I knew well and most admired intellectually simply dropped out of the program, abandoning their plans for the Ph.D. Of those completing their Rochester Ph.Ds in the 1970s, a tiny handful won jobs at research universities, a few others at undergraduate institutions. The others joined the lost generation. Yet the most fully shattered careers remain those of the faculty members who were denied tenure. For them, the sense of personal failure is most wounding and disabling.
     In the 1970s the genteel academic world of the previous decade largely disappeared, never to return. It used to be that when an academic fell from a position of high prestige he—the appropriate pronoun, since the profession of the 50s and 60s was largely a boy's club—might land securely but one or two levels down and live out his career there with relative satisfaction. If an apprenticeship as a graduate student at a highly ranked department was followed by yet another apprenticeship as, say, an assistant professor at an Ivy League research university, failure to achieve tenure might lead to a job at a good liberal arts college. But by the early 1970s far fewer failed academics descended to a nearby perch. They fell instead like Milton's Lucifer. Many fell out of the profession altogether, some into nether worlds from which they were never to be heard from again. We became a profession that was unusually wasteful of its personnel.
     The wastefulness starts early. Statistics have shown for decades that the national attrition rate from graduate programs runs at about 50%. Since 1971, only about a third of new Ph.Ds have landed tenure track jobs. Of those, at some schools significant percentages fail to win tenure. As best as I can calculate, of the people who began to enter graduate school in the late 1960s, fewer than ten percent actually earned tenure, stayed in the profession, and had lifelong careers as college or university teachers. It is a statistic no one thinks of, but it speaks a certain brutal truth about the academic enterprise nonetheless. For some cohorts the percentage of "careers" in higher education would be nowhere near 10%. Battlefield survival rates are often better.
     As Barbara Lovitts has shown, wasteful graduate programs are typically graduate programs that care little about their students.[vi] There are always more where they came from, so indifferent departments make little effort to socialize students into the codes of the discipline. In some departments 80% or more of the graduate students drop out without completing their degrees. So too with departments wasteful of their new faculty members. They may actually maximize the teaching loads of faculty on the tenure-track, as mine did, or if not, they may assign assistant professors the courses (like composition) with the heaviest paper grading burden; there are always more assistant professors where they came from. Now we have a profession that is still more wasteful of its members, shifting ever more of the professoriate into part-time positions, holding on to the apprenticeship model of graduate education despite its wholesale evisceration by a job system that denies most "apprentices" full-time salaries throughout their lives.
     Whatever sort of profession we can become in the future will be increasingly shaped by the sort of profession we have been over the past thirty-five years of the job crisis. Yet the full nature of that profession—and its vast human cost—remains largely invisible and unknown. How many casualties have humanities departments actually generated since the late 1960s? How could we find out not only about the sheer numbers of people abandoned or discarded at each stage of the profession, but also about what happened to them? What sort of lives have humanities disciplines generated in the second half of our century? Where have all the teachers gone?
     Finally, I suppose some will ask whether it matters. Did the thousands upon thousands of people who washed out of the profession belong in it? The most likely answer, one based on my own experience, is that some did and some did not. Certainly the people denied tenure at Illinois included some immensely successful teachers who would have done very well at a liberal arts college. Some were and continue to be serious readers, so they would have kept up with the field, not become the sort of popular teacher who grows steadily out of date. Perhaps these people just did not belong at a place that demanded publication. Unfortunately, the inexorable job system did not give them many choices.
     In a way, the discipline of the last several decades has run simultaneously on two parallel tracks. There has been the discipline of astonishing intellectual advancement and ambition—the discipline that promoted new interpretive methods, that opened up the canon, that reached out to study new kinds of texts and objects. We might call this the discipline of the dreamers. But along side it all the while has churned a discipline of another sort, Moloch, the devourer of souls. Moloch is the discipline that sustained its privileges and ambitions by cheapening thousands of human lives. Moloch is the disciplinary system founded on a base of cheap instruction provided by slaves deceived into thinking they are serving a higher cause. One of the rules of the game is that Moloch and the Dreamer pretend never to cast eyes on one another.
     There is of course some evidence that this is changing. Since the mid-1990s both regional conferences and national disciplinary organizations have run numerous sessions on professional issues at their annual meetings, including sessions on part-time work. Sessions on "MLAlienation" have become something of an ongoing tradition in literature. Yet the conferences appear somewhat schizophrenic as a result, with sessions on literature or history or anthropology and sessions on the job crisis passing each other like ships in the night. There is no mutual interrogation of each enterprise, and MLA, the largest disciplinary organization for humanities professors, mostly keeps interpretation and professional politics in separate publications, PMLA and Profession.
     The uneasy coexistence of these worlds reflects long-standing blindnesses. During the very same years we were celebrating theory we failed to recognize, or even evaluate, let alone theorize, our own relentlessly wasteful institutional practices. Theory has powerfully pervaded literary studies, history, and the foreign languages, but been little applied to the profession itself. We celebrated the new feminism while destroying women's lives. We investigated Marxism while expanding our own exploited proletariate. We democratized our annual conventions and curricula while acting like plantation overseers in our own work places. Now the plantation chickens have come home to roost. The rest of the world has embraced the conclusion, long inherent in our own practices, that humanities professors are of little value. And so they are increasingly employed at sweatshop wages with no job security and little time for intellectual reflection.
     We believe we cannot master the forces operating on our present and shaping our future unless we confront our past. The kind of departmental self-study the Modern Language Association has appropriately called for needs to be deepened and expanded and applied in all disciplines. We need to record the myriad histories of the individuals who passed through the institutions of History and English and French and German since the 1960s. We need to recover our collective institutional history, department by department, and then we need to find a way to share that history and reflect on it as national disciplines. We offer this chapter in part to issue a call for that project to begin.
     For those still in the game, we do not urge the academic equivalent of universal survivor's guilt, though we do think survivor's awareness and reflection are essential. Yet the history that renewed memory can give us will not be easy or straightforward. On the one hand, as we observed at the outset, there is a real component of individual responsibility for some of the career failures of people on the tenure-track; on the other, most of the thousands of Ph.Ds who never found academic jobs washed out of the profession through no fault of their own. We used them to staff our entry-level courses or sustain our graduate programs and then cast them aside. For that history, we have some reason to feel regret, even to regret who we have been. To address the emerging crisis of the near future in ignorance or denial of the past is thus to ground ourselves in moral bankruptcy.
     The alternative—to take our history into ourselves and seek a more ethical academic workplace—does not appeal to everyone. Some consider an appeal to morality unrealistic. Academics, they argue, will simply pursue their own self-interest. Yet short-term personal gain for tenured faculty can seem a fairly empty value when pitted against the agony of the unemployed and the exploitation of the underemployed. Moreover, some faculty at least have cultural and psychological investments in educational institutions that are at considerable long-term risk. So there are grounds for principled argument in academia, and there are constituencies who can be reached by such arguments.
     Unfortunately, achieving a fundamentally ethical workplace in academia is now impossible. If the job market remains disastrous, what would a completely ethical graduate program be like? We make an effort at answering the question in the book's last chapter. How would we employ apprentices without a future in a fully ethical manner? What are the responsibilities of highly paid faculty and administrators in an era of exploitation? We are left with degrees of compromise and relative fairness and unfairness.
     Others argue that focusing on an individual industry's problems obscures the need for broader and more radical social change. Yet change that spreads by example from industry to industry can become more pervasive and fundamental. And people have the greatest potential to transform their own workplaces. Many of the issues that confront education, moreover, are similar to those in other industries—from the shift to part-time work to the collapse of entry-level salaries to the curtailment of workplace speech in a corporate and politically conservative environment. The campus workplace is also a good place to begin bridging the class divisions that help keep lower grade workers impoverished across the world. Academics, if they are willing to critique their own identity formations--identity formations we begin to describe in the next chapter--can help show others how to address the inequities of the global economy. Yet we cannot resist the inertial force of an exploitive history we hardly know. If we suppress knowledge of the brutal diaspora of the teachers of the last three decades, we will watch the next generation be scattered still more widely over even less fertile ground.
     What this chapter documents, in an admittedly anecdotal fashion, is part of the price we have paid for the sink or swim, entrepreneurial academic culture of the last fifty years. For all the necessarily solitary features of academic life, it is now clear that individual ambition needs to be balanced with community responsibility and collective action. It is the message of this book. We are tempted to recommend, as we have before, Joe Hill's famous last words of 1915: "Don't Mourn. Organize." But this essay is of course in part a work of mourning. So we will revise Hill's advice for a culture too long inclined to suppress its past and ignore its present: Mourn and organize.



[i]. For interesting comments on a graduate student cohort, see Peter N. Carroll, Keeping Time: Memory, Nostalgia, and the Art of History.

[ii]. The two administrative secretaries were Rene Wahlfeldt and Carol Severins, both of whom helped me with data for this essay.

[iii]. Teaching loads were reduced to five courses a year for assistant and associate professors in English in the early 1980s at Illinois and reduced again to four courses toward the end of the decade.

[iv]. "Luck" can include such things as whether you have a senior colleague or dissertation director who convinces a press to send your book manuscript out for review. It can include whether the people who choose your outside evaluators for tenure are knowledgeable and sympathetic. As late as 1996, my own department's Advisory Committee willfully chose antifeminist outside reviewers selected to torpedo an accomplished feminist's case.

[v]. Apart from their individual idiosyncrasies, this group has some common professional characteristics. Several resisted the New Critical revolution throughout their careers, refusing to do close readings of literary texts in the classroom. Almost all treated the rise of theory as a "fad" that would soon pass; those still on the faculty persist in telling students planning graduate study they need not learn anything about theory because it will have been swept away by the time they come to write a dissertation. A few refused to add female writers to their courses through the 1980s and 1990s, declaring that feminist criticism felt like an attempt to "castrate" them. More recently, one complained about the presence of Marxist theory in the curriculum and urged formal adoption of "antidotes" to it. Such positions are frequently of little use in any productive professional dialogue.

[vi]. See Barbara E. Lovitts, "Leaving the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Analysis of the Causes of Departure from Doctoral Study." For a summary of her findings, see the entry on "Attrition Rates" in Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education.